Weekend Hike with My Coworkers (and Escalation of My Illness)

I told you there would be lots of hiking!

The Saturday after my third week in Uliastai, a group of coworkers from the health department and I went hiking. They had invited me earlier in the week, before I was completely exhausted, so I had agreed to go, only to be sore from tons of aerobics and tired from lack of sleep the morning of the hike.

We met up at the health department at 7am before driving over to where we would be hiking. I had originally been told we would be hiking a certain famous mountain right behind the hill my friends and I had climbed two weeks before

Yeah, that one

Yeah, that one

…which is apparently the tallest of the mountains surrounding Uliastai. But when we started driving in a different direction, straight through the valley (and all its rivers and streams, at one time getting stuck, because off-roading in a sedan is not the brightest of ideas), I assumed that the plans had changed.

We ended up driving quite far away from town and even part of the way up the mountain we would be hiking, until we ended up here:

You can just barely make out the city way out there in the background

You can just barely make out the city way out there in the background

We abandoned the car and finally started up the mountain, which wasn’t too steep at first, until it suddenly was.

Ok, break time!

Ok, break time!

It was also very cold, as the sun was rising on the other side of the mountain. Which was great for my never-ending cold (as in, the upper respiratory infection). Let’s just say my pockets were stuffed full of tissues for my dripping nose the whole time.

After a while, we came to what I thought was the top of the hill we were climbing, but ended up just being a slightly less steep part of the hill. At least it was pretty with all the trees, and we were finally up in the sun.

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When we got to the top of that hill, we could see into the valley on the other side of the mountain, where the Bogdiin River flows into Uliastai.

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But we weren’t even close to done yet! Next we had to get up to some weird rock formation!

Onward!

Onward!

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To be honest, I had absolutely no idea where we were going or if anyone else did either. I got the sense that we were just going to keep hiking up and up and up until there was no where left to hike up to.

We had made it up to a grassy hill and someone finally showed me where we were headed:

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To that pointy rock formation up there a little to the left. Not only was that the top of the mountain we were on (finally!), but there was an old legend that if that rock formation (which actually has a name: Jinst) ever fell down, the whole city of Uliastai would be flooded. Yay!

And of course, there was an owoo shrine right beside it

And of course, there was an owoo shrine right beside it

From the top of the mountain, Uliastai looked so tiny!

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At this point we finally sat down and had a picnic with the food we’d brought.

Mongolian picnic

Mongolian picnic

But with the combination of no longer moving, being on top of a mountain, and, well, being in Mongolia, it was really freakin’ cold! The wind definitely didn’t help either. All of my coworkers laughed at me when I put on the gloves and ear warmers I had packed in my backpack (haha, silly American can’t handle a little sub-freezing windchill without dragging out her gloves!), but I saw them all rubbing their hands together and breathing hot air into them, so I know they were cold too! Just jealous that they didn’t come prepared like me…

Anyway, after eating our food, we wandered around all the cool rock formations and took a bunch of photos:

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Eventually we headed back down the mountain, but instead of going down the way we had come up, we decided to go straight down one of the rockiest, steepest parts of the mountain at a ridiculously fast pace, because who couldn’t use a little damage to their knee ligaments?

Come on slowpokes! It only took us 4 hours to get up there, you should be able to come back down in 40 minutes, tops!

Come on slowpokes! It only took us 4 hours to get up there, you should be able to come back down in 20 minutes, tops!

When we finally did get back down to where the cars were parked, we found that one of the other health department workers and her daughter had come to bring us more food! Time for a second picnic!

While we were eating, two young boys rode by on a horse, and my coworkers (who knew that I like horses), called these random boys over and asked them if I could ride on their horse. They may have bribed the boys with some of the food we were munching on, but they let me sit on their horse while one of the boys led it around for a while.

Cementing in the young children's minds that foreigners are a bunch of weirdos

Cementing in the young children’s minds that foreigners are a bunch of weirdos

But no Mongolian shindig is complete without vodka! Which our director just happened to have in the trunk of his car! Now, I’m not a fan of vodka unless it’s mixed with something into a cocktail, but we had been warned during PST that vodka would be present at pretty much all Mongolian get-togethers (even those with your boss present) and that it is customary to pass shots around. So of course I was offered a shot, which I begrudgingly took and gagged on.

Finally we piled into the cars to head back to Uliastai. But then we stopped by a random ger in the middle of nowhere to ask–I kid you not–if they had any yogurt. See, traditional Mongolian yogurt can be made with the milk of any livestock, but my coworkers informed me that the best yogurt comes from the animals belonging to the herdsmen out in the countryside. So, seeing a ger in the middle of nowhere, they (correctly) assumed that a herding family must live there and have yogurt at the ready. A couple coworkers went in to ask if they had any fresh yogurt, and when they confirmed that they did, all 10 of us waltzed into this poor random family’s ger to eat their food. As my director told me, it is perfectly acceptable out in the countryside to come to some stranger’s ger and get fed. So the family served us milk tea, bread, and the coveted yogurt and chatted a while until we finally left.

I was quite tired at this point (and still sick), and I thought we were going home, but when we got close to town they pulled over by the river and started dragging blankets and mats out of the cars and laying them on the ground. It was time to play cards!

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They proceeded to play a billion rounds of a Mongolian card game that they often play during lunch at the health department. They had tried to teach me how to play before, and did again on this occasion, but for some unknown reason they always assign one of the workers who speaks absolutely no English to teach me, and I’m not one of those people who can learn how to play a card game just by watching other people play it. Every time I thought I was understanding the game, someone would play a card that changed everything.

We eventually started to pack up, until someone remembered that there was food left over from our earlier picnics and–gasp!–we hadn’t finished the bottle of vodka from earlier! So picnic #3 commenced, as well as another round of shots. By now most of my coworkers could tell that I was tired and not feeling so well (did the constantly wiping and blowing my nose tip them off?), so we left very soon after that. I did get one last photo of the mountain that we had climbed though:

Does that itty bitty, barely perceptible rock on the top look familiar?

Does that itty bitty, barely perceptible rock on the top look familiar?

But yeah, you probably shouldn’t spend an entire day hiking and various other exploits when you’re battling an illness, as I found out when I got much sicker the next week!

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Wrapping Up PST

The last few weeks of PST went by very quickly. Language classes became more difficult as the LCFs started blowing through entire sections of the book in a single lesson, whereas before we would spend at least a couple days on each section. As a result, it was difficult to keep up and I felt like I wasn’t really learning anything in a way that would allow me to remember it in the long-term.

It also really started to sink in that I would be leaving my host family soon, which was made even harden by the fact that most of them had left on a 2 ½ week trip to visit a sick relative, leaving me with just the 2 sisters and an uncle who had come to stay with us. They didn’t come back until two days before I left for Final Center Days.

The Saturday before our last week in Dereven, we had Host Family Appreciation Day. We had a picnic by the river with our host families and LCFs.

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Each host family brought a Mongolian dish to share, and we PCTs planned to share some American food culture with our families by having a hotdog roast and s’mores. Except we couldn’t exactly find all the needed ingredients in any of the stores in Darkhan: hotdog buns, graham crackers, and regular old marshmallows do not exist here. So we improvised with cut-in-half hamburger buns, Mongolian crackers that were as close to graham crackers as we were going to get, and Haribo Chamallows.

Eh, close enough

Eh, close enough

Our attempt at Mongolian s’mores actually turned out better than expected, and our host families seemed to like them.

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The hot dog roast didn’t go as well since “hot dogs” here are not exactly Oscar Meyer franks and don’t do so well when removed from their casing and put on a stick over a fire.

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Oh well. We also bought a cake, and everyone loves cake!

Even if it's a birthday cake at a non-birthday event

Even if it’s a birthday cake at a non-birthday event

On our last Tuesday in Dereven, we had our final LPI (Language Proficiency Interview) and TAP (Trainee Assessment Packet). I was nervous for the LPI, because even though I had done well on my practice LPI back in July, I knew I hadn’t been grasping the more recent material as quickly. I tried to balance studying with not stressing myself out too much, and by the time Tuesday came around, I just wanted to get it over with. We didn’t have class that day because we all had 30-minute slots for the LPI and for the TAP scattered throughout the day. My TAP wasn’t until 1:30, which meant I got to sleep in, but after I woke up and studied for another hour, I was just so ready to get it over with.

Unlike our practice LPI, where the interviewer was one of our LCFs, this time we were interviewed by a Mongolian lady we had never met before but had apparently been a Peace Corps language tester for 10 years. It’s hard enough to understand when someone speaks Mongolian to me, but then when it’s someone who I’ve never talked to before and whose accent is completely new to me, it’s almost impossible (and it doesn’t help that so many Mongolian women speak so softly that I can barely hear them even when they’re speaking English). She started the interview by asking me to introduce myself. Then she asked me to talk about my Mongolian host family, my American family, and a friend. The interview was 30 minutes long, so I was trying to eat up as much time as possible by babbling on about my family members, but my limited vocabulary prevented me from talking about that for too long. Then she asked me some other random questions, and had me ask her a bunch of questions. Finally, we did a dialogue where I had to pretend to be a teacher and she was the director at my school and I had a headache and needed to ask if I could leave early to see a doctor. Overall I think it went pretty well. We found out the first day of Final Center Days how we did, and I ended up getting Intermediate Low! Novice High is considered passing, so I did even better than I needed to! I’m not exactly sure how the scoring works though, because the two guys in our group who have amazing Mongolian (and make the rest of us look like losers) also got Intermediate Low, so who knows.

After that I had my TAP, which was much less stressful. They told me that my LCFs, technical trainers, and host family only had positive things to say about me, that I had done very well during PST, and that they thought I would be a very successful Peace Corps Volunteer. Yay!

Mid-Center Days

Beginning on July 2nd, all of the M25 PCTs came together again in Darkhan for Mid-Center Days, which is another 3 and a half days of Peace Corps training approximately halfway through PST. We stayed at the Darkhan Hotel again (which has wifi in the lobbies! Score!) and had lots of training and informational sessions all day long at the Humanities University. Then in the evenings we had free time to get dinner, go shopping, etc. On one of the nights we had a media exchange to share movies, TV shows, and ebooks between each other’s hard drives. On Thursday all of us Health PCTs and a few of the current Health Volunteers went out to dinner at a restaurant that actually served pizza (which is obviously not available in little Dereven). It was absolutely delicious, and I probably had 5 or 6 slices!

Then Friday was the 4th of July, so when we went back to the hotel for lunch, we saw that the Peace Corps staff had decorated the dining room with American flags and had gotten the chefs to make us all hamburgers, hotdogs, and French fries!

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Then in the evening a group of us went on a “hike” to a big field right outside the city to have a picnic, chat, throw around a Frisbee, kick around a soccer ball, and play with one of the current PCV’s adorable puppy!

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Of course a ukelele was involved

Of course a ukelele was involved

View of the city from the field

View of the city from the field

On Saturday we had a half day of sessions and then headed back to our respective sites. It was really nice to get to see everyone from the other sites, especially since we didn’t see each other again until Final Center Days and Swearing-In in the middle of August. Oh yeah—and on two of the nights we stayed at the hotel there were crazy parties going on until the wee hours of the morning in a giant tent right in the parking lot (which was conveniently on the side of the hotel my room was on…), so we all got very little sleep and barely made it through all the long sessions. As soon as I got back home from Mid-Center Days I took a glorious, much needed 5-hour nap.